New Buyers in Town
Netflix is spending big bucks on original series. With Amazon and Hulu following suit, the digital landscape is generating new opportunities for writers and giving networks a run for their money. At last.  

(February 6, 2013) 


Photo: Patrick Harbron for Netflix
Director Allen Coulter (L) and executive producer Beau Willimon on the set of Netflix’s House of Cards. 

There was considerable media hoopla last week around the premiere of House of Cards, Netflix’s first original series. Written by Guild member Beau Willimon (The Ides of March), directed by David Fincher and starring Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright, the high-profile series reportedly cost $100 million for two 13-episode seasons and was a shining example of web TV at its flashiest.

But House of Cards is only the first of a handful of original (and Guild-covered) series on the video streaming service’s lineup, which also includes (in various stages of production) Orange is the New Black, Hemlock Grove and Arrested Development, the critically acclaimed Fox series (2003-2006) which is coming back under the guidance of its original creator Mitch Hurwitz and starring (again) Jason Bateman. And while Netflix is out front with production zeal and hefty budgets, Amazon and Hulu are also making forays into the original programming business.

All of this bodes well for writers. As the world of television shifts and episodic storytelling finds a new home on Netflix and other digital platforms, the chokehold that media consolidation and TV networks has on competition begins to loosen.

“They’re new buyers, which we really need because five companies now essentially control film and television,” says WGAW Research and Public Policy Director Ellen Stutzman of Netflix’s shift into original series. “Because they control production and exhibition they’ve been able to make changes that aren’t good for writers, like less development or fewer films. Having a few more competitors like Netflix and Amazon means writers will have more places to pitch and networks competing for their content.”

While the new business model translates into economic opportunities for writers, it also brings creative perks and challenges. When Willimon was approached by Fincher to adapt the popular 1990s British political drama for an American audience, he relished the idea of turning Brit Parliament Whip Francis Urquhart into ambitious South Carolina Congressman Frank Underwood. Writing 26 one-hour episodes also gave Willimon and the other writers (Keith Huff, Rick Cleveland, Sarah Treem, Sam Forman, and Kate Barnow) a largely expanded palette on which to develop and deepen their Washington world and the characters of House of Cards. “Then you start making choices that make the series slowly diverge from its British counterpart,” he says.


Photo: Lisa Vinnecour
Orange is the New Black executive producer Jenji Kohan (R) and actress Dascha Polanco, who plays Dayanara on the show. 

Moreover, writing a series whose full season of episodes is going to be made available to the public all at once facilitated some welcome differences to conventional episodic television. Because viewers can “binge” – watch all episodes in one sitting – or tune in when they want for as long as they want, content creators have to approach writing episodes as one ongoing show. “It’s all out there,” says Jenji Kohan (Weeds), whose series Orange is the New Black is expected to premiere this Spring on Netflix. “I want people to click from one episode to the next, which affects how I’m doing the show. It gives me a huge opportunity to make sure the series is coherent and makes sense. I can tweak things before I turn in the whole season of episodes, which is a luxury.”

Lee Shipman who, along with partner Brian McGreevy is writing and producing Hemlock Grove, a horror/thriller based on McGreevy’s 2012 book, pitched the series to a number of cable outlets but felt they grabbed the brass ring when Netflix made a bid. “They offered a level of creative freedom that we couldn’t find anywhere else,” says Shipman. “We both remember seeing the announcement about House of Cards, and saying to each other, ‘This is where we have to be.’”

With a 13-episode commitment, the writing partners approached the first season as a movie. “It was pretty exciting,” says Shipman.

Kohan - whose series centers around a Brooklynite (Taylor Schilling) who ends up in jail because of mistakes from her past that have caught up with her – is still shooting the 13 episodes of her series in New York. Working for Netflix, says Kohan, feels like the future of television and a new opportunity for writers like herself. “It offers a new platform on which to tell our stories and display our wares and gives us a new audience – an audience that is choosing to watch a show on their own time and any way they want to watch it.”

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